A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Monday, 30 November 2015

New York Trip Report - Day 1 (Central Park)

Day 1 -  Thursday 21st May 2015

Being a destination we had both been eager to visit and with Central Park well known as a migrant hotspot during the epic spring migration, we booked 10 days in what is perhaps the most well-known city in the world – New York.  Whilst this bustling hub of metropolitan life may not at first glance seem a typical birding destination, the parks attract an incredible array of species during spring and autumn migration, with over 20 species of warbler waiting to be found on a typical May morning. Also home to such iconic sights as the Empire State Building, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, as well as the natural wonder that is Niagara Falls being easily accessible through flights to Buffalo, New York was the perfect choice for our first journey in to American birding.
Central Park, New York
The famous view of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline
Basing ourselves at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan for the duration of our stay, we were just 3 blocks from the entrance of Central Park, and with one of New York’s many tube stations situated right outside our hotel, the rest of New York was easily accessible to us via public transport, meaning we managed to explore 3 of New York’s 5 boroughs during our stay (Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens). With a wealth of parks and wildlife refuges scattered through New York offering the many birds passing through a place to rest up during migration, a fantastic diversity of species can surprisingly be found living alongside the 8 million people that call the city their home, and without doubt, this was the best trip that both of us have been on to date.
New York, America
New York, America
Landing at JFK airport just after lunch, despite the 7 hour flight there was no time to rest. After checking in to our hotel 3 hours later (the border queues at the airport were huge!) we immediately took the 5 minute walk to perhaps what is the most iconic park in the world to begin our trip – Central Park.
Sheep Meadow, Central Park
The famous Sheep Meadow in Central Park
Having already familiarised ourselves with the species we should come face to face with and having tried to memorise the calls, along with our Sibley Guide we were well equipped to begin our adventure, despite neither of us having any experience with American birds apart from the strays and vagrants that make it across to Britain.

Completely artificially created and nestled within the towering skyscrapers, Central Park is an absolute mecca for birds during May, with the peak usually occurring during the second week. Luckily for us, migration this year was late, as we weren’t able to fly out until the 21st, giving us the whole of the last week and part of the third to see what goodies we could unearth. With their bright colours, vibrant patterns, and often quirky names, warblers were naturally high up on our list and were the main focus during our time in New York’s parks.

Taking bets as to what the first new bird we’d spot would be (Alex thought Chimney Swift while I went for Great Blue Heron due to JFK being so close to the water) we were both proved wrong, with that honour going to the classic American Robin.
American Robin - New York
American Robin - our first new species in America!
Hopping around on the grass just a few feet from the entrance, we had our first American species in all its glory – much larger than I had expected and more similar in size and structure to a Blackbird than a Robin. I couldn’t resist stopping to take a series of photos (despite Alex telling me we had to focus on the rarer species on our first day and not get distracted by the common) although this was definitely justified as these initial shots proved to be my best of American Robins throughout the whole trip!

Dragging me away and heading in the direction of the Ramble, we soon racked up some of the commoner species. A Blue Jay taking advantage of some leftover bread was just as beautiful in real life as depicted in our books, while the bright red flash of a Northern Cardinal looked positively tropical in comparison to our normal backyard birds at home. Huge flocks of House Sparrows and Starlings also provided a touch of familiarity, having been introduced here and thriving in the urban landscape of Manhattan.
Blue Jay - Central Park, New York
Blue Jays were relatively common
Northern Cardinal - Central Park, New York
Northern Cardinals were also a regular sight
Northern Cardinal - Central Park, New York

Turning a corner, we were suddenly greeted by a large, bright orange bird, sunshine yellow in colouration with a black face and bill. Was it a warbler? We struggled to get an ID before our brains clicked in to gear – Baltimore Oriole – of course!
Baltimore Oriole - Central Park, New York
Much smaller than I had imagined, we watched as this beautifully vibrant bird hopped along the fence line, leading us straight to two sparrows that were also busy feeding - differently marked from the surrounding House Sparrows. With bright orange caps and a strong white stripe above their eyes, we were quite surprised to come across this pair of Chipping Sparrows, a species not often reported in Central Park. This small 5m2 patch of grass was seemingly on fire with birds, as just seconds later a thrush hopped in to view and perched obligingly on the fence – putting our limited knowledge of American Thrush ID to the test! Originally calling it as a Veery due to the pale speckling on the chest, we later re-identified it from photos as a Swainson’s Thrush (our most frequently encountered Thrush in America) due to the prominent white ‘spectacles’ surrounding the eye – a handy feature for distinguishing this species.
Chipping Sparrow - Central Park, New York
Chipping Sparrow - Central Park, New York
Chipping Sparrow and Swainson's Thrush - Central Park, New York
Chipping Sparrow and Swainson's Thrush together
Swainson's Thrush - Central Park, New York
The spectacle marking around the eyes gave the ID away as our first Swainson's Thrush
Moving on down the path, we caught sight of our first Cedar Waxwings, a small group positioned at the tops of the trees opposite, slightly obscured by the branches but giving away their presence by their high pitched calls. Numerous throughout our trip and at nearly every location we visited, these American waxwings differ from our familiar Bohemian Waxwings by the pale lemon yellow flanks and absence of white and yellow patches on the wing tips (Cedar’s just have the plain red waxy tips as opposed to the many colours on the Bohemian).
Cedar Waxwing - Central Park, New York
Cedar Waxwing - the waxy red wingtips are clear to see, as are the lemon yellow flanks
A House Finch, presumably busy collecting nesting material was a great spot by Alex, especially for Central Park, and we were pleased to catch up with this stunning male in his fine red breeding plumage. Our first Chimney Swifts of the trip chattered overhead, the cigar shaped body apparent as they flew above us, and we followed them round with our binoculars as they cut effortlessly through the sky.
House Finch - Central Park, New York
House Finch was a great spot for Central Park
House Finch - Central Park, New York
House Finch - Central Park, New York
Chimney Swift - Central Park, New York
Chimney Swifts chattered around our heads at almost every site
Chimney Swift - Central Park, New York
Before long, we had encountered our first warblers of the trip – a stunning male Magnolia Warbler was busy feeding in a stand of conifers close by to East Drive, along with what we initially presumed to be a female Yellow-rumped Warbler. With a bright yellow belly streaked with black - like an artist had smudged him with splodges of paint, we watched as the Magnolia flitted from branch to branch, often stopping to pose out in the open. Having only seen a first winter Yellow-rumped Warbler (the Durham bird) before in terms of American warblers, it was mind-blowing to see these brightly coloured little birds – a far cry from our Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs.
Magnolia Warbler - Central Park, New York
Magnolia Warbler - one of the commonest warbler species we saw during our trip
Deciding to take some photos while Alex headed further in to a grassy clearing, I focused on what I thought was the yellow of the Magnolia Warbler and reeled off some shots. On closer inspection however, this turned out to be the other bird –definitely not a Magnolia, and now not so much looking like a Yellow-rumped either. Reminding me of a Palm Warbler (yellow belly with faint streaking) I got the bird in my binoculars to try and get a better look. However, with the light being terrible it proved difficult to get any features, so I called Alex over to take a look at the photos and we decided that it must be the female Yellow-rumped.

However, upon our return to the UK and going through my images, I stumbled across my photos of this bird and zoomed in for a closer look. Something still wasn’t quite right, and having gained more experience as our trip progressed, I was now sure this wasn’t a female Yellow-rumped. Checking my Sibley, the closest match was a female Cape May Warbler – the thin, sharp, pointed bill, white and yellow toned belly with slight dusky streaking and the dark eye markings absolutely spot on. A further check on e-bird for Thursday 21st May also resulted in a Cape May Warbler reported on that day – bingo! Mystery solved, and our belated 23rd warbler species for the trip!
Cape May Warbler - Central Park, New York
Cape May Warbler - retrospectively IDed after we had got home!
Cape May Warbler - Central Park, New York
The thin bill is apparent - as is the streaked breast
Cape May Warbler - Central Park, New York
Cape May Warbler - Central Park, New York
Exploring the area around the conifers revealed several more new species for us in quick succession, two brown birds flitting around the trees were our first Warbling Vireos of the trip, their flutey song matching perfectly to the recordings on Alex’s American bird app. 
Warbling Vireo - Central Park, New York
Warbling Vireo
A pair of Mourning Doves sat peacefully on one of the boughs of the tree, our first of what would be many of these easily approachable birds, while a Common Grackle foraged on an open patch of grass nearby. With a glossy blue-black iridescent plumage and startling bright yellow eyes, these beautiful and charismatic birds were equally as common throughout – their bizarre and alien-like calls following us around wherever we went.
Mourning Dove - Central Park, New York
Mourning Dove - Central Park, New York
Mourning Dove - Central Park, New York
Mourning Dove
Common Grackle - Central Park, New York
Common Grackles were another common species in New York
Heading down towards the lake, we came across our first woodpeckers of the trip, with two actively calling around a presumed nest hole in one of the trees. Much too small to be Hairy Woodpeckers, and with short stubby bills, these had to be Downy Woodpeckers. Extremely small in size, these dainty woodpeckers are similar to our Lesser spotted Woodpeckers back in the UK, with black and white barring and a touch of red. Our first male Blackpoll Warbler of the trip caught our attention behind us – one of the less colourful of the American warblers, being just black and white, but extremely attractive none the less. Along with American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroats and Magnolia Warblers, these black capped little birds would prove to be one of the commonest warbler species over here, and we quickly became familiar with their calls and appearance.
Blackpoll Warbler - Central Park, New York
Male Blackpoll Warblers, while not as colourful, were still stunning
Blackpoll Warbler - Central Park, New York
Walking further around the water and with the afternoon getting later, Alex spotted a medium sized grey bird flying between the bushes. Approaching closer to get a better look, we caught sight of a jet black cap and rusty brown patches under the tail – a Gray Catbird. Another common species throughout our trip, the calls often alerted us to their presence.
Gray Catbird - Central Park, New York
Gray Catbirds were one of the more numerous species in New York, seen at nearly every site in good numbers
Gray Catbird - Central Park, New York
A rather different song soon caught our attention, and locating the bird in question revealed a Song Sparrow sat amongst the grass, switching between serenading us and feeding on the remains of seed and bread left from those grabbing a quick bite to eat on the benches. Just a few metres away from us, we got great views of this rather bunting-like little bird. With thick, bold streaking on the chest, and brown, black and white striped facial markings, this was one of the most familiar American sparrows, and we managed to see a handful of these throughout the trip.
Song Sparrow - Central Park, New York
Song Sparrow - Central Park, New York
Song Sparrow - Central Park, New York
Our best views of Song Sparrows were right at the start of our trip
Another Common Grackle approached, that too taking advantage of the leftover scraps, while a flash of colour flying across the lake caused us to look around. Just managing to catch a glimpse of scarlet patches with jet black wings, this could only be our first Red-winged Blackbird of the trip – the birds were coming thick and fast.
Red-winged Blackbird - Central Park, New York
Red-winged Blackbird - Central Park, New York
We had great views of Red-winged Blackbirds later on during the trip
We moved off to under a patch of trees next to what is Robert Wagner Cove, where a small drab warbler hopping through the leaves turned out to be a female Common Yellowthroat, with a second not too far behind in the next patch of bushes. Lacking the striking mask of the male, the females had a bright sunshine yellow throat patch and a distinct white eyering, and we stopped to watch as they foraged in the leaf litter – the light slightly too dark for anything more than record shots.
Common Yellowthroat - Central Park, New York
Female Common Yellowthroat
Heading round the path and over to the opposite side of Robert Wagner Cove, we came across an excellent patch of mud at the side of the lake that looked perfect for attracting a whole manner of birds to bathe in and drink from. During the trip, we often found many of the warblers near water sources, and it was great to just watch and wait as a steady stream of species would come in to take advantage of the relief that the water offered.

In this particular patch, a second bright yellow male Baltimore Oriole immediately caught our eye, stopping to drink at the lakeside edge. A small sparrow also soon came in to view, delicately hopping through the mud and looking for morsels – quite different from the Chipping and Song we had already encountered. The bright white throat patch could only mean one thing – White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow - Central Park, New York
Record shot of the White-throated Sparrow
We watched as this was then joined by a second sparrow (we originally wondered if this was a female White-throated due to the small white throat patch) but it was much drabber and reminiscent of a Dunnock back in the UK. Our sparrow ID in the field not quite up to scratch on this occasion, we took several record shots and belatedly identified it at the hotel as our first Swamp Sparrow – the chestnut back and cap, predominantly grey face with just a single black line through the eye and unmarked chest and belly nailing the identification. With reports on e-bird not including many sparrows and with it getting on for the end of May, we were doing incredibly well, picking up several wintering species that should have left long before we got there.
Swamp Sparrow - Central Park, New York
Dreadful record shot of the Swamp Sparrow - we were able to clinch the ID back in the hotel
With the light now starting to fade, we continued along the lakeside to a patch of trees that looked ideal for holding warblers. We weren’t disappointed – another male Blackpoll Warbler gave stunning views, while what we originally thought was a second Magnolia Warbler later revealed itself to be our first Canada Warbler. One of my favourite warbler species, we took in the striking yellow throat lined with a necklace of thick black dots, the white ringed eye also diagnostic as it hopped through the branches. Sadly, this was one of the few species that neither of us managed to get a photo of, and being one of just 3 seen on the entire trip they were far less common than I had expected.
Blackpoll Warbler - Central Park, New York
Blackpoll Warbler - Central Park, New York
Blackpoll Warblers were relatively abundant 
Another small, brownish warbler soon caught our eye. Still on our first day and not yet accustomed to the many species of warbler in America, we struggled to get an ID in the field – taking a few record shots and resorting to IDing it back in the hotel that night. With a ginger cap and prominent double pale-yellow wing bar, we eventually settled for a female Chestnut-sided Warbler – a great find, especially so late in the day, and again one of only 3 seen all trip.
Chestnut-sided Warbler - Central Park, New York
Female Chestnut-sided Warbler
Having finally reached the Ramble, we came across another Downy Woodpecker, this time giving fantastic views as it probed on a feeding station just a few feet away – definitely the ‘cutest’ woodpecker species here in America. Our first Northern Flicker of the trip dashed across the trunks to the sides of the path, the gorgeous olive and black speckled wings beautiful even in the fading light.
Downy Woodpecker - Central Park, New York
Downy Woodpecker - Central Park, New York
The Downy Woodpeckers showed amazingly well on the specially constructed feeders
Turning the corner in the maze of paths, Alex spotted an Ovenbird creeping slowly in the leaves and hiding away amongst the bushes. We managed to encounter four of these on our trip, and this large species of warbler is unusual in that it spends a considerable amount of time on the ground, strutting across the leaves like a tiny chicken with its characteristic walk, quite unlike most other terrestrial songbirds. Quite chunky in appearance, the thick black markings on the white belly and black and orange striped cap were distinctive, and it was a species that Alex in particular had especially wanted to find that day.
Ovenbird - Central Park, New York
Horrific record shot due to the light being so poor! Despite this though, the orange and black crown can just be made out!
With the light now fading and Alex’s target bird for the day in the bag, we turned around and headed back through Central Park to the hotel, a nice perched Red-tailed Hawk being our final new species of the day, giving amazing views on a branch right above our heads.
Red-tailed Hawk - Central Park, New York
A nearby Raccoon also provided some entertainment as we photographed the hawk, creeping up the bank and trying to approach some bemused passers-by.

Whilst heading in to the middle of Central Park had been easy, getting out again proved far more difficult. Not yet familiar with the many roads, paths and turnings, and completely unaware of which side of skyscrapers we had come from, we wandered around for half an hour before we made our way out - feet now aching and jet lag starting to set in.

Despite only having half a day, we had definitely made the most of our first afternoon in Central Park, managing a respectable 27 lifers and seeing a host of great species already. The next day would also prove key - with migration now coming to an end this would be our best chance for such jewels in the warbler crown as Blackburnian, Black and White and Black-throated Blue. With an excellent first day here in this magical city, we celebrated with a delicious Italian pizza, ready for an early start the next day to continue with our quest for our target warblers. 
Central Park, New York

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